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As part of my series of thought leader interviews in the area of learning technology, I spoke to Thomas Jenewein on social learning and how an agile user-orientated approach works for development of learning programmes.

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John: Thomas, what do you do at SAP?


Thomas: I started my career in training and development, working in SAP University and as an internal project lead, coach and manager. Then I moved into product management for SAP where I worked in developing LSO and in integrating social learning and social knowledge management into SAP software. Now I am doing business development for SAP Education.

John:  I understand you were originally a psychologist?

Thomas: Yes – I studied industrial and organizational psychology in Mannheim, Germany and in San Diego, California. As far back as 15 years ago, I rolled out e-learning within SAP using the SAP LMS and virtual classrooms, and since then I have been very interested in leveraging new media within learning and in social learning.

John: Does social or informal learning help companies meet business goals?

Thomas: There is lots of research on this, but if you ask most people where their competencies come from:  whether from formal training, from learning from others including social learning, or learning on the job, people tend to say that most of their learning came from actually doing the job. They also say that a large proportion, perhaps 20-30%, comes from learning with or from others, and this is for me social learning. Only a small portion of competencies comes from formalized learning. For someone very junior in a capability, formal learning is important. But for more mature, established employees, informal learning is more important.

Formal training struggles to keep up as things change. There’s a lot of organization, central control, scheduling and production needed for formal training. But if you decentralize, for example you give people tools – communities, media directories and so on – you can be faster and more flexible. If you set up informal training, say with a podcasting directory or communities, and support the build-up so that there is some initial content and you have a moderator – people see the value, that there is some good content and they can have a discussion, and it works.

Social learning projects don’t always work, they can go wrong, but when they work, they are very effective.

John:  What are the main ways to make social and informal learning successful?

Thomas: The challenge is that you don’t have that clear control. In classroom training, it’s easy – you can define the learning objectives, you can organize all the resources and you have good control as a trainer or as the learning and development department. But for social learning, a moderator or facilitator needs to be in place as a success factor. We need to prepare those communities appropriately with structure and pre-filled content. Someone needs to ensure that all questions are answered. People need concrete use cases as to how they can use it. These are some of the success factors.

Another important thing is the critical mass of the community. You need to look at the typology of how people behave in social media. There are a large proportion of lurkers, people who only consume – this can be up to 90%. Then there are perhaps 8-9% people who do very simple interactions – for instance they comment or like. Then there are a very small proportion of active contributors. You need to have a very motivated community or you need to have a large number of people to reach a critical mass.  For instance, if you only have 20 people, it’s very hard to have a community that gets going and is living.

John:  How can you increase the chances of people contributing?

Thomas: The important thing is to facilitate it. It’s also helpful to motivate the special contributors to produce extra content. These are typically top performers or experts that people look up to. You need to motivate those people to start a discussion. You also need to have some pre-prepared material.

One thing that can be successful is gamification. On the one hand this is giving people rewards, which can be intangible like badges. But it’s also giving people meaning, for example to prepare a mission or challenge that people have to do. This can be small things like “read and like this article and you get 5 points” or “review a course and you get an explorer badge and some points”. This gives some meaning to people to know what to do in a community but it is also motivating and gives recognition.

John: So you mean give points and missions like SCN do?

Thomas: Yes, exactly. You may check this mission on the SAP Learning Hub as an example in SCN: http://scn.sap.com/community/training-and-education/blog/2014/02/07/learning-earning-how-to-get-scn-points-badges-by-learning-with-sap-learning-hub


John: I notice that you are the second person on the leader board in the SCN Training and Education space! So you practice what you preach!

Thomas: Yes (LOL)


John: Does gamification makes a difference?

Thomas: It does. Some people are motivated to collect points. Some more want to explore to find out things. And some are motivated by the status and the help to their reputation – they think others will think them smarter. And this helps you to motivate and engage users.


John: SAP has had a huge amount of change in the last years. How important has social and informal learning been within SAP itself to make change happen?

Thomas: Very important. We have nice examples of informal learning within SAP. They are very simple things not introduced by the training department. For example all the news items within SAP are not displayed within a static portal but within a blog so people can discuss them. Another thing is that we have lots of communities, I think there are 5,000 contributions a month within our internal SAP Jam network. Almost all employees participate, either as lurker or contributor.

There is a lot of contribution, and there is a lot of micro-learning. I like very much the way crowd sourcing works. If I have a question, for example to help answer a question or problem from a customer in a specific industry, I just post it in our internal SAP Education community; and in the next day or so I get an answer from somewhere in the world.

This has nothing to do with formalized training, but it is informal learning or on-demand learning. We also introduced this lately to customer education – and call the social learning there “Learning Rooms” – and get also very good feedback from customer sites (see http://scn.sap.com/community/training-and-education/blog/2014/01/31/learning-rooms-social-learning-with-sap-learning-hub).


John: How do the tools that SAP Education sell, the learning management systems, assessment management system and other tools – how do they fit into social learning?

Thomas: We need both. Just because informal learning is becoming more important, it doesn’t mean that formal learning is not important any more. In my personal experience, if I want to learn something new it’s sometimes easier to go for two days to a training course, so I’m away from phone, email and meetings and can really concentrate there, and get feedback from other learners in the classroom, and share their experience, all in a controlled environment with a trainer.

And we often need to make records, especially in compliance and mandatory training. For example, from an employer point of view within SAP, it is important that all employees hear about company strategy – cloud computing and mobile technology and so on. And employees need to know about regulatory stuff like data security and mandatory sales rules. And these need to be formalized to track and check that everyone has met the minimum requirements. This is critical to reduce risk.

So I think we need both.

If you take a product like SAP Assessment Management, it’s easily consumable in the cloud and from mobiles. And we have integrated the SAP LMSs – LSO and SuccessFactors – with SAP Jam. Customers can also benefit from this. And of course SuccessFactors Learning is pre-built for mobile and social. It’s much more than an old school LMS, it’s more like a next generation learning system that supports informal and formal learning. And SuccessFactors Learning can integrate to MOOCs, it can model MOOC-like scenarios. It has great mobile access and extremely good capabilties to do Learning Analytics, another area which is becoming more and more important.


John: How do you see things changing within social learning in the future?

Thomas: A big trend in social learning is integration of learning into the work. We are not talking “Facebook for the enterprise” but really integrating social capabilities and scenarios into the work process. Learning should not be a silo – I also like the term “Performance Support” – although it is already an older model. So learning – social, informal or formal – should be there to support performance in your daily job – and not remain standalone. It’s much harder to integrate social learning into work than just having standalone Communities – there is more change management, but this is the future.


John: What advice can you give people in learning and development from your experience in SAP product development?

Thomas: One thing that’s very important is end-user orientation, which can be more driven via the agile method of design thinking SAP uses in product development, but which you can use elsewhere. It’s also relevant for a learning developer or for a training expert developing a new learning offering.

It sounds very much common sense that you should tailor things to your customer and target group needs, but it’s not always done as organizations get bigger.


John: Can you explain how agile methods can help people?

Thomas: You do very quick prototyping, and have short agile cycles of development of software or content. Then you always check it with your stakeholders.

You build a list of tasks, called a backlog and you complete one item at a time. It’s more flexible, more iterative and gives a better feedback loop than other methods. What people sometimes like is to plan something 100% in the beginning, perhaps taking a year, and then execute it. But if you spend a year planning, things change and you lose alignment with your customers. With agile projects, you use small iterations and have rapid feedback loops with customers. It also helps to have a multi-disciplinary team.

Agile methods and user orientated thinking work just as much for learning and development as for software development.

For some further reading:

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